Weathering the storm: How practices are coping with the recession

Emergency and acute care are on the rise as clients try to save money by postponing care for ill pets, according to practice managers and owners who participated in a series of discussion groups on "Weathering the Recession" at the AAHA Yearly Conference last week.

Veterinarians reported fewer visits but higher average transaction costs as a result of clients attempts to control spending on pet care.

Dealing with the downturn

Practices’ individual economic situations varied, but many reported that people in their areas were fearful of losing their jobs and of spending money. Local layoffs from major employers had an impact on some practices. Not everyone was feeling a slowdown in business, but those who were described the various ways they are trying to get clients to stick with their practice.

According to one Northeast practice owner, their practice has adopted the strategy: “Do less, better.”

The practice will now stick to simple dog and cat “lumps and bumps” surgeries, referring more complicated cases to specialists, the owner said.

Reminders and payment plans like Care Credit were also seen as helpful to many owners and managers.

One West Coast practice manager renamed Care Credit the practice’s Stimulus Package, and people really responded to it. The idea was so successful that the practice’s Care Credit brochures and applications have disappeared from the practice, the manager said.

One Northeastern practice owner said they have started their own newsletter to connect with clients.

The owner said the newsletter will acknowledge the economic condition and send the message: ‘maybe it’s a time to get back to basics.’ The newsletter will go on to remind clients what the basics are in terms of veterinary care for their pets.

A Lake Oswego, Ore., practice manager said it is not just the economy that can hit a practice hard. Unexpected setbacks like severe weather can also take a toll, making it especially important for practices to have an emergency or disaster plan in place. A snowstorm in January took out the practice for 10 days.

The practice normally could have weathered it, the manager said, but this time, with it coming on top of the economy, the practice lost ground.

Several West Coast practices reported that they haven’t lowered fees. However, one said they allow the front office staff to play “let’s make a deal” with some clients who meet certain requirements, for example, a certain number of years with the practice.

Looking on the bright side

Many practice owners/managers were optimistic about AAHA’s new logo and newly announced million-dollar accreditation awareness marketing campaign. Several practices said they expect it will be a great help in bringing clients in the door during the recession.

Several practices reported that dental procedures have picked up.

A practice manager from Minnesota said dentals are pulling them through the recession.

One veterinarian jested that this could be due to laid-off pet owners spending more time at home and getting sick of their dogs’ bad breath.

Acute care was down as a general rule, but since many clients are putting off bringing in sick pets, the average transaction charges per visit were up.

According to one practice owner from the Great Plains region, veterinarians are making money because clients are trying to save money by postponing wellness visits and preventive care. Clients are waiting as long as three to four days before bringing in pets that are showing signs of illness, he said.

A Northeast owner agreed, saying that typically about 20 percent of their practice’s gross income is from emergency practice, but in the past four months that has shifted to 25 percent.

Clients are postponing but not stopping services, said a West Coast practice manager. Sometimes the practice will send reminders three months after the recommendation. People who initially postponed will then feel that they should have the service done and come in.

Several practices said veterinarians should be taking advantage of client motivation to teach clients how to do basic home care. Clients are much more motivated to do home care as a way to save on vet bills, said one Great Plains practice owner. For example, they are aggressive about brushing their pet’s teeth to stave off professional cleaning and polishing. But those same clients still want to take good care of their pets, and are willing to pay $2,200-$2,300 for a dental surgery if it comes down to it.

Emphasizing client interaction and offering the personal experience was seen as a key factor in maintaining clients. Sometimes this means a change in management staff, such as the addition of a hospital administrator, said one practice owner.

You have to let go of the management duties, the owner said. It is important to trust someone else’s skills, to free you up to be with clients. In a recession, it’s easy for some personality types to wield tighter control, but this is the time to delegate.